A 'True Life' Memoir of an Honor Killing Unravels in Australia

Article excerpt

The facts of Norma Khouri's story were supposedly so explosive she had to flee Jordan to write it.

Her bestselling memoir, "Forbidden Love," tells how her lifelong friend, Dalia, is killed for loving the wrong man. In the book, the two 20-something women open a unisex hair salon in Amman, Jordan. Dalia falls for a Christian officer in the Jordanian military. But when her Muslim father discovers the cross-creed relationship, he stabs her 12 times.

Now the "true life" story may be a hoax.

This after Ms. Khouri's writing took readers by storm in Australia, where she made a new home with the help of her publisher, Random House. Her book sold a quarter-million copies in 15 countries - including a US edition from Simon & Schuster - and invigorated campaigns to fight so-called honor killings in Jordan and beyond.

The "Forbidden Love" scandal, though not the first fraud to slip up the publishing world, would be the largest to ever hit Australia, and threatens to undermine efforts to eradicate honor killings. Yet industry insiders are skeptical whether it will provoke substantial changes in an intensely competitive business driven by public hunger for true stories and publishers' bottom lines.

"It's become the publishing world's Jayson Blair scandal," says Shona Martyn, publishing director of HarperCollins Australia, referring to the disgraced New York Times reporter. "It can be classified as our worst nightmare if there is such a misleading book on the market."

So far, though, no heads have rolled at Random House Australia, with the author promising to furnish evidence. But the book has been recalled after the alleged fraud was uncovered 10 days ago.

A Sydney Morning Herald investigation brought to light public records showing that Khouri actually lived in the US from the age of 3, when her parents left Jordan, until she immigrated to Australia with her children about three years ago.

The Herald also uncovered a series of basic problems in her story, like the fact that she gave Jordan a border with Kuwait and named hotels which did not exist. Then there was the question of the unisex hair salon: Jordan does not allow such establishments to exist.

The National Commission for Women in Jordan had independently discovered more than 70 errors in her book and sent this information earlier to Random House and to Simon & Schuster. Random House replied at the time that they stood by their author after being satisfied that she had changed names and places to protect people in Jordan.

Khouri insists her version is true - that she really did grow up in Jordan and ran away to Australia via Greece when she felt her life was threatened for helping her friend. Her lawyer told reporters over the weekend that she was busy compiling information to back up her story and that "she was a few days away from completing her inquiries."

In the meantime, the Herald visited her parents' home in Chicago and was shown photos of her growing up in America.

As the evidence of literary fraud piles up, the publishing industry is doing its own search for answers about how a book like this can slip through the fact-checking process.

"I am surprised it does not happen more often," says Jesse Fink, a former editor with HarperCollins. "In the past there have been cases where there are too many factual errors in a nonfiction book and the publishers, instead of canceling the book, have just responded by telling the editor to work harder to get the book in a publishable state by Mother's Day, Father's Day, or Christmas. …